Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Saturday, February 2, 2013

On Poetry and Sound

Last December at Harvard, Christian Wiman, (the now departing editor of “Poetry”) gave a marvelous reading of his extraordinary translations of Mandelstam. During the course of the evening he remarked that the Russian poet “followed sounds to their meaning.” This is a typical way of ordering the labor of poetry: chaos, submitted to discipline, produces order. Noise is transformed through design into signal.

But why not the reverse? What if the work of poetry is to follow meanings back to their sounds? Or to follow the sounds inside of meaning? What if order, per se, is not the goal, but rather a kind of symmetry or patterning that performs its own cognitive and affective functions? Is meaning more original, more prior, as it were, than sound? When poetry interferes in the unidirectional flow of sound to meaning then meaning’s priority is dislodged, its reliance on sounds exposed.

This is not the same as nor should it be confused with destroying meaning in some adolescent nihilist gesture. Agamben describes rhyme as the intersection – even the co-production – of the semantic and the semiotic. Poetry that exploits the potentiality of this seam or overlap doesn’t undo meaning; instead it shows that the Orphic contract which legislates the unity between a word and a thing is always highly contingent, susceptible to unraveling at any point along its signifying chain.

And those seams in the chain is where the marvelous can break in.

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